One of capitalism’s most effective tactics of late is its placement of knowledge workers into permanent states of emergency and precarity. Each day churns up a new threat, a new outrage, a new lame letter from the university president, lackey of the university’s racist alums and trustees, many of whom remember fondly the days when they used to pose with confederate flags hung proudly in front of their fraternities. I defend myself by meeting with workers and comrades, groups of us planning and strategizing over tacos. We who operate in the Undercommons. Somehow in the midst of this, I also find time to practice radical loving kindness: watching, hoping, reading cookbooks, cooking. As a character notes in a recent episode of High Maintenance, “Life is funny — bees make honey.”
Oh, the indignities one must endure in order to be allowed to live. New ones gather each day in my inbox. Take yesterday, for instance. After teaching my two morning classes, afternoon ones still hanging overhead, I forsook lunch midday (not by choice) in order to attend one of the bugbears of higher ed, a mandatory, university-wide faculty meeting. Imagine the unfolding of the event as follows. First, the campus. To complement my place of work’s already robust assortment of life-size statues in bronze, the powers that be have seen fit to season the landscape for at least the next month or so in true Hoffmann-esque fashion with dozens of towering, larger-than-life nutcrackers and plastic wooden soldiers, these armies of 10-foot-tall fakes assembled at intervals along every path and promenade. Next, the meeting itself. It begins with a risqué musical number courtesy of the Theatre department, the stage decorated to evoke Germany’s Kit Kat Klub. Cabaret is actually an inspired choice, I think: a last hurrah of pleasure as the country slides weightlessly toward fascism. A senior business administration major who was diagnosed with testicular cancer his freshman year but who now is cancer-free counsels us about the importance of gratitude. How truly blessed we are, says the student. Onward and upward! After a bible-thumping invocation led by a member of the faculty, the president invites an architect to the stage to provide us with an update about the construction of a new campus hotel-cum-athletics-arena. “Very elegant, a boutique hotel,” we’re told. Keep in mind, the university financing this structure is the same one that just laid off two of my colleagues on grounds of budget-tightening. And the building boom doesn’t stop there. Instead, a different, equally nondescript architect gets up soon thereafter and tells us about another set of construction projects: a crystal palace conservatory housing an indoor arboretum, and a new undergrad sciences building with a state-of-the-art planetarium. “It’s got to be ‘state-of-the-art,’” brags the president, American flags on either side of him and a chandelier overhead. Afterwards a faculty liaison reports on a recent board of trustees meeting, dwelling at length on honorary doctorates awarded to local furniture magnates, while noting as well the university’s performance in terms of net growth of assets. Next up is the university’s athletics director. Rah-rah, he says, our teams are great. “Thank you, faculty,” he adds after a brief pause, his skin radiating positivity, “you’ve provided our athletes with the support they need, thus creating an ‘environment for success.’” Following him at the podium comes the provost, a jolly old Southern gentleman bearing diagrams and flowcharts about who ought to do what and when. He says up-up-up, we’re all going up, and reports breathlessly on the status of a “committee on committees.” “We’re looking to streamline our committee structure,” he assures us. “Tweaks are underway,” he hums, “to usher in your future!” Faculty input in this process is no longer necessary, however, due to changes in structures of governance. Instead, market-proven technocrats will decide our profession’s future. The rest of us, we’re told, have — sorry to say it! — no choice but to poise ourselves to receive whatever data-driven dystopia comes our way. It’s simple, really — don’t you know? We must work on X, Y, or Z to get “value”; otherwise, the future will not be as bright as it could be. “Evolve into the person you are intended to become,” the president commands, the meeting now well into its second hour. Optometry and accelerated nursing, he says, will help us “kill it” in terms of enrollment. “Thank God a thousand times over,” he proclaims as if to break a spell. And with that, finally, he adjourns the meeting and sends us on our way. As I rose from my seat, though, I thought to myself, “A thousand times over? Hardly. The god that graces this Ponzi scheme is a god that deserves to die.”
Return to me the vision of the post-scarcity Noble Savage. I prefer it to the belief that only a properly constituted society and reformed system of education could make humans good. Able to live in egalitarian plenty. Instead, history is about to culminate in a monstrous epoch of universal conflict and mutual destruction. Collective nouns go silent one by one. The one, because self-conscious, thinks it needs to put itself above others. Hence our current mess. Voices get in our heads. Ghosts. It’s like tinnitus. I no longer want anything to do with the certification industry. That’s all education is anymore. Certification of would-be modern-day plantation owners and Indian-killers. Schools leverage testing, punishment, and the trauma of near-constant boredom in order to transform imaginative beings into cop-worshiping, mortgage-paying members of middle-management. Proponents, armed with nukes, wish to extend this twenty-first century plantation-via-franchise system to all corners of the globe, using “protection of national interests” as justification for perpetual military deployments abroad. Those who perform their duties, those who consent to assessment, are no less complicit than those who lead. I no longer even have the hope of fellow wage slaves waking up and becoming allies of mine, comrades. We’re all too chickenshit. My resentment of myself and others manifests as a total all-encompassing white-hot rage. When others show up to work, I have to work, and vice versa — thus making us mutual enemies. What’s the point? I work all day just to come home and stand in line at fast-food burrito joints. Slop for defeated workers.
I act like others know something I don’t know. And vice versa. I become uncaring and detached. Hiro Kone’s “Less Than Two Seconds” returns to me a sense of direction.
August is always the cruelest month. When I arrived Tuesday morning to the first of several all-day faculty and staff meetings — events where my coworkers and I are forced “captive audience”-style to listen to the euphemistically-titled “president” (rather than “boss” or “CEO”) of the institution where we work wax on about vacuities like “excellence” and “grit,” I quickly found a seat and prepared to cast elaborate hexes on those I hate. Above me stood the usual theater-sized screen (adorned, naturally, with American flags on each side of the stage); but rather than begin with slides featuring self-aggrandizing quotes from corporate leaders, as has been the tradition in years past, this year’s presentation began with a video of a five-member all-male black song and dance troupe covering Bell Biv Devoe and Boyz 2 Men hits from the 1990s against an unchanging solid white background. Message received loud and clear, I thought to myself: this is apparently all my institution can muster as far as “valuing diversity.” In all other respects, the presentation was exactly what I’ve come to expect: a near-endless rehearsal of credentials as the institution welcomed new hires; a near-endless rehearsal of financials to assure us that “all is well.” “Growth mindset,” we were told, “is in our institutional DNA.” The president waddled across the stage stating, “Life muddies you up, grit, faithful courage, value in global marketplace, blah blah blah.” To survive such events, I deliberately zone out and find joy whenever possible. Later on, some bullshitter from a company called “Generational Insights” provided a bullshit cart-pulls-horse account of labor-management relations, suggesting that “individualistic Millennials” are the ones demanding precarious workplaces, rather than precarious workplaces producing the individualistic mindsets of Millennials. I love it when corporate schmucks in ill-fitting suits complain that others in our society lack empathy. And yet, to either side of me, lemming-like coworkers of mine from business and sports medicine laughed at each of this dude’s potted one-liners. What can I say: you can’t judge a fish by looking at a pond, but cluelessness abounds these days in the groves of the corporate pseudo-academy. The Left may have embarked on a long march through the institutions following the impasses of the 1960s — but those institutions in many cases are drifting rightward again day by day.